Challenging and beautiful: how art can be a safe place to be scared

When I walked into Divergence, the current exhibition at Joan Hisaoka Healing Arts Gallery, I actually felt something akin to fear. My first thought was, ‘I love this, but I can’t write about it.’

Still, I wanted to see the show and hear the curator and artist talks that were scheduled for that evening so I began slowly moving through the space, trying to absorb the works. I wanted very much to understand the connection between the exhibition and the Gallery’s mission ‘to [exhibit] fine art that explores the innate connection between healing and creativity’ (See ‘About the Gallery’). The Gallery is part of Smith Center for Healing and the Arts, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit that works to utilize the arts in healing through community programs (See ‘About Us’).

Divergence features the work of Shaunté Gates and Njena Surae Jarvis and is curated by acclaimed artist, Martha Jackson Jarvis. I was privileged to listen to each of these individuals give insights into the exhibition in what Gallery Director, Brooke Seidelmann, fittingly described as a ‘moving dialogue’ through the gallery space.

photo 2 (1)Njena Surae Jarvis’s work features assorted objects—furniture, casts of body parts, sculpted bones, and woven rope—each one darkly colored, suspended from above, and gently lit by light bulbs affixed to the walls. My photos (posted here) capture the imagery that I found particularly bewitching (and to which my husband adorably responded, ‘Please don’t show me those right before bed’).

Shaunté Gates’ work comprises a collection of surrealistic mixed media canvases each depicting a single figure confined and tethered in some way and rendered in striking shades of black, gray, and deep red.

photo 3Comments from the guest book clearly showed that visitors had appreciated the show’s complexity. Several comments described the show as disquieting, yet beautiful and vital.

These lovely oxymorons proved immensely helpful for me because they pinpointed the seemingly conflicting, yet strangely compatible qualities inherent in the artists’ works. They also drew my attention to the dark liveliness of the exhibition.

Despite its energy, Divergence invites a very unhurried style of looking; it asks you to look, and then look again and hopefully notice something new. (This gentle pace is, in itself, somewhat healing and therapeutic.) Interestingly, in the re-look, we can subvert and extend our own initial impressions. For example, Njena’s work, with its disconnected objects and body parts, initially appears vaguely violent. However, as Njena explained, the true nature of the work is peaceful and meditative. Indeed, a closer look reveals that the works hang in a restful, rather than distressed, state. Similarly, Shaunté’s figures initially appear desperate and trapped, but later reveal a hidden agency and voice. As Shaunté explained during his talk, their blindfolds and restraints can be easily removed.

Michael O’Sullivan from The Washington Post aptly described these surprising layers of meaning: ‘Several of Jarvis’s bones, for instance, are fused with the furniture parts, suggesting less destruction than deconstruction. Or, rather, reconstruction. The sense of pulling something — or someone — together comes across as strongly here as does the sense of tearing something apart.’ (Michael O’Sullivan, The Washington Post)

Engagement with these works ultimately reveals strong themes of duality and contrast, as Njena explained. Thinking later on this idea of contrast, I realized how important contrast is in highlighting possibility—an essential component of hope and healing.

Moreover, the blurring of fantasy and reality in Shaunté’s work offers the chance to disconnect from our experience just enough to understand our personal obstacles a little better.

Many moments of our lives are filled with contradiction and conflicting experience. We can feel both vast love and paralyzing rage toward the same person, or deep empathy despite seething disappointment. Sometimes what protects us also tears us apart. An art exhibition is a safe space in which to accept these contradictions and simply exist alongside them.

The disconnectedness of the works helps invite the viewer to construct his or her own narrative. This is an exercise in agency and gives a great deal of power to the viewer. In fact, the more I write about this exhibition, the more I feel a sense of permission to interpret the works in any way I like since I feel they offer a genuine invitation to assume some control.

Divergence also gives viewers permission to enter a darker contemplative space. Darkness is important, Njena explained. I emphatically agree. My favorite moment of the night was when Njena described the darkness of her work as ‘a remedy for a dull life.’

This complex exhibition has left me wondering whether museums and galleries could do more to explore human vulnerability, to make visitors ‘work’ so that they almost experience discomfort, but then walk away with real insight, and so that they interpret works viscerally as well as intellectually?

Applying this learning experience to my own life, I decided that the trepidation I felt about writing this post and interpreting this challenging exhibition indicated how important it was that I try. So here is my humble attempt. I would love to hear others’ thoughts—especially those who have seen the exhibition.

‘The show invites us to walk life’s knife-edge to explore that which makes us sentient beings and connected,’ says the Gallery’s event page. Another way of saying this might be that the exhibition requires a little courage, but that it’s worth it.

(Divergence runs until October 25.)

Photos are ‘excerpts’ from See What You See Is You What You See by Njena Surae Jarvis.


O’Sullivan, M. (2014, September 18). ‘Divergence’ at the Joan Hisaoka Healing Arts Gallery. The Washington Post. Retrieved from